The worth of obvious scientific conclusions

Whenever a scientific study confirms the supposedly obvious you find this kind of reaction, and I get fed up with it. It’s almost certainly just fun in Norm’s case, but I’ve met people who take it seriously and add it to the they-change-their-minds-all-the-time-anyway dismissal of science. In psychology particularly there’s plenty that’s counter-intuitive, and it’s only by this kind of ‘obvious’ investigation that progress can be made.

For example, today there’s a study suggesting that female ‘sexy’ walks do not correlate with times of peak fertility – there are subtle signs of this, but they’re only detectable at close range. It was expected that the study would go the other way, and the result isn’t particularly intuitive. A few weeks ago a study reported that lap dancers have increased earnings during their most fertile phases, as compared with those on the pill all month. Also unexpected.

Of course, the cynic’s reaction will be to instead deride the studies as pointless, but you never know where this kind of research is going to lead. These studies add to theories of evolutionary psychology, and invite us to ask how much of our choices are determined by subconscious signals – how much free will do we really have? Not every result is going to be new and exciting, but investigation always reveals something. A quick browse of snopes.com will show how many ‘obvious’ things widely thought to be true are completely wrong. Confirmation of ‘common sense’ is worth having.

Derren Brown – Mind Reader: The Evening of Wonders

Derren Brown programme coverHalfway through the second act, Derren Brown called out my name and told me the first song I ever played on a guitar. It was quite the thing.

Derren Brown is a ‘psychological illusionist’ memorably described by Charlie Brooker as ‘clearly the greatest dinner party guest in history’. His TV shows regularly feature a mixture of street magic/psychology and elaborate, often controversial, events. He’s certainly the most interesting TV magician of recent years, and last night I saw him at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Like his TV shows, the act was described as a mixture of ‘magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship’1, and lived up to the billing. We were told that during the show a gorilla would come onto the stage, steal a banana from a stand at the front, and most of us wouldn’t notice. So it proved. We saw an audience member forget information given to her moments before, a floating table drag four volunteers around the stage, six rapid-fire games of 20 questions in which he never asked more than 4, and a series of baffling three-digit-number predictions. Somebody’s phone rang and he said “don’t answer, it’s really bad news”.

Derren Brown is unquestionably on the side of Good. He says up front “I do not have psychic powers, and I may well trick you”, then proceeds to do so. People who claim to have psychic powers and use the same tricks to make money are unquestionably Evil2, the opposite are great entertainment. Some have questioned whether he goes too far: there’s plenty of genuine psychology, but also a fair amount of magical trickery wrapped up in the same patter. I was lucky enough to get an insight into this. At the end of the first act we were told to watch out for ushers with 150 cards. Recipients were asked to write a question for Derren on the card, seal it inside the supplied black envelope and note their initials and row on the front. They were then to check the envelope was truly opaque before walking onto the stage and placing it into a glass bowl, which remained in full view of the audience throughout the interval.

Obviously, I wanted to do this. So I did. I moved fairly quickly and was able to grab a card before they ran out. The card asked for my name, birthday and a question for Derren. He’d said it could be literally anything, so I wrote “How did the bee ‘waggle dance’ evolve?”. The back of the card then asked for a private piece of information to further test his abilities, so I filled this in too then quickly headed to the stage, dropped my envelope into the bowl and made it back to my seat just before the lights dimmed.

After a couple of tricks he explained the procedure. By looking at the handwriting on the front of the envelope he hoped to ascertain the personality type of its owner. We were to stand up, and he’d then read our body language and try to figure out what we’d written. And then proceeded to do so. He picked out apparently random cards, sometimes using them, sometimes discarding them, and called out the initials so the owner stood. He told people the pets they had, the password for their computer, their occupation and what they’d been doing that day. About half-way through he took off his microphone earpiece, in case anybody thought he was being fed answers, and wrapped bandages around his head to completely blind himself. And then continued with the act. The following exchange (transcribed as accurately as I can remember) happened shortly after:

DB: [picks up a card] A guitar! Andy..Andrew…does that match anybody?
Me: [standing up and receiving the microphone from a scurrying usher] Yes, that’s me.
DB: A Taurean, right?
Me: Yes. [gasps from audience]
DB: This is something musical, something to do with the guitar. I’m getting…It’s the first song you played on the guitar, am I right?
Me: Yes.
DB: Ok. About fifteen years old, right?
Me: No.
DB: It is older?
Me: Oh, me or the song?
DB: Never mind, one question at a time. Sing the song over in your head. Over and over. Try to project it to me.
Me: [actually doing so]. Ok.
DB: I’m getting something about…pain, is that close?
Me: Yes, very.
DB: And lots of pain. I can’t quite figure it out. There are many people in pain? Something like that?
Me: That’s very close.
DB: I can’t get the title I’m afraid, what is it?
Me: Everybody Hurts. [audience go into shock]

I was very, very impressed. The rest of the show was most entertaining, but I couldn’t quite get over him managing to detect that kind of information from what must have purely been the tone of my voice – it’s astonishing that people can give away that much information!

Later, I changed my mind. There’s no doubt that the guy has an uncanny ability to read people, and I was prepared to accept that handwriting could give away very obvious facts like gender, leaving him to discern the rest from body language, but blinded he couldn’t possibly have known my guitar fact and name. So it must have been trickery, rather than psychology. I’m confident I’ve worked out how it was done, starting from the age-old magical principle that there is no limit to the trouble a magician will go to. I’m not going to go into it here – I see no reason to, and am still bound by the old magician’s code anyway – but the clues are there if you want the intellectual exercise.

It is momentarily crushing to realise you’ve been fooled. I bought into the psychological aspect, and when I realised this was a falsehood I felt tricked. But not for long. Once you figure out the secret you can see the myriad of ways he worked to throw people off the scent, and it was remarkably well done. The subtlety and panache of just that one trick was stunning, and his performance impeccable: I believed every second of him not being able to figure out the song title. There was plenty in the show that was clearly trickery, but I have no idea as to the mechanics. Other effects gave every impression of being purely psychological. I had the advantage of extra knowledge in the routine I was involved with, and if each of the others was as carefully constructed, which they must have been, it was a hell of a creation. My admiration far outweighs the initial resentment.

Derren Brown’s obfuscation of psychology and trickery is edgier than most magicians’, but I don’t have a problem with it. You don’t have to be a great logician to realise it’s impossible to get a psychological reading of somebody’s handwriting if you’re blindfolded, and throughout the show he was at pains to say he doesn’t believe in psychic ability and is highly skeptical with regard to the paranormal. I can’t think of any statements that were outright lies and not magician’s misdirection. There’s plenty in psychology that is astonishing – much of it is well highlighted in his more spectacular TV work – and anything that draws attention to it is fine with me.

A good magic show is a wonderful thing, and there aren’t many classier than this. Highly recommended.

  1. the programme is also “100% natural: we have used organic paper and done away with nasty chemicals or artificial inks.” Gotta love those natural inks. []
  2. it’s likely that some believe they have some genuine ability, but that’s not an excuse []

S.U.V.s aren’t safer than smaller cars

I’ve only just discovered Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 article on S.U.V. safety. It’s quite the dramatic read. In typical style, he grabs you in the first few sentences:

In the summer of 1996, the Ford Motor Company began building the Expedition, its new, full-sized S.U.V., at the Michigan Truck Plant, in the Detroit suburb of Wayne. The Expedition was essentially the F-150 pickup truck with an extra set of doors and two more rows of seats—and the fact that it was a truck was critical. Cars have to meet stringent fuel-efficiency regulations. Trucks don’t. The handling and suspension and braking of cars have to be built to the demanding standards of drivers and passengers. Trucks only have to handle like, well, trucks.

S.U.V.s have appalling safety records in comparison to any other type of car, it seems. Such large cars may be better at protecting you in the event of an accident, but the inherent control difficulties result in accidents being far more difficult to avoid, more than offsetting any protection benefit. He quotes life-threatening injury risk percentages, from studies of 35mph crashes, that are just ridiculously high. A Porsche is safer than a Ford Explorer, statistically speaking.

Gladwell goes on to talk about the psychological effects that work to make people feel that S.U.V.s are safer. Sheer bulk, soft surroundings and height all contribute. Cupholders, believe it or not, are also a major factor! This leads to a discussion on the perceived risk of factors that are out of our control. It’s far more likely we’ll die in a car accident resulting from irresponsible or drink driving, but when a manufacturer recalls tyres thought to be responsible for a small number of deaths it’s big news. We’re actually far more at risk from factors we can control (to an extent) than those we can’t. This obviously resonates with the news of recent days, and the general climate of fear.

I don’t know much about cars – how do S.U.Vs such as the Ford Explorer compare to 4x4s more common in the UK?

Life coaching, and how I was seduced by nonsense

Just over a year ago I started seeing a Life Coach. Six months ago I abruptly stopped seeing a Life Coach. I think enough time has passed for me to get a decent perspective on the events, and to explain how I ended up wanting to believe somebody who was telling me that any problems I have may stem from a previous life.

A year ago I wasn’t having a good time. I was taking two A-levels under a self-study course and by late spring was faltering in a big way. I had no clue what I’d do once the exams were over, nor any real aims in life. Although pretty much over the upset from my break-up, I was still struggling with being on my own. My parents had heard good things about a local Life Coach, and, very kindly, offered to pay. I looked over the aims and benefits of life coaching, and this is the kind of thing that came up:

Coaching is future orientated and although touches on the past, it is predominantly focused on creating a better future. It is very practical in its approach, as it involves proactively planning specific actions, which will enable step changes to be made. Progress is often rapid and hence can be fairly short term.

It certainly seemed to be what I needed, and I agreed to give it a try.

In the first lesson we used some kind of chart to break my life down into various components – friends, health, romance, work etc. – and figured out which areas needed improvement. Self-image and work were the big issues.

For the next few months I saw her on a weekly basis. We’d talk about my week, going over anything that had upset me or I’d found difficult, then move onto ways to improve things. Chief among these was the idea of affirmations – small phrases of confidence such as ‘I am likeable’ that I should say to myself as often as possible. The theory was that after a while they would ‘sink in’ and would become my default thoughts, as it were. Another technique was the trigger: whenever I felt particularly happy or confident I should do some action – I used touching a particular knuckle – and then whenever I needed a confidence boost I would repeat the action, which would trigger associated positive feelings. The trigger was undoubtedly the most impressive technique; it really did help on a number of occasions. Affirmations I’m not so sure about.

In hindsight, simply spending an hour talking to somebody was as helpful as anything else. Maybe it played to my bad habit of attention-seeking, but having somebody external who seemed genuinely interested in helping me was undeniably pleasant. She helped me figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I realised, through talking things out, that the activity I enjoyed above all else was writing. We figured out a plan to help me develop this, while still making money by other means. This was great, and exactly what I needed.

At one point I remember her saying something like “you’re a really likeable chap”. That, I think, was a mistake. Thereafter I didn’t want to tell her anything that I thought would change this opinion.

Although I was possibly backing away slightly, the by now fortnightly meetings were still productive. Then, not long before christmas, I had a bad week for one reason or another – can’t remember why, now – and wasn’t very happy. Towards the end of our meeting, she said something like “do you want to fix this problem once and for all?”. Naturally, I said yes. She explained that the cause of my lack of self-confidence was one particular event. It’s possible I wouldn’t even remember it, but this one event had started off the problem, and problems had spread like cracks ever since.

Alarm bells rang. This sounded a little dodgy. But, then, I’m not a psychologist. Maybe this was possible.

All right, I said. The good news, I was told, was that there was a way to fix this. It’s remarkably powerful, she said, and comes from neuro-linguistic programming.

Blink. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded impressive. She had a certification in it and everything.

The answer to all my problems was ‘timeline therapy’. She had personally witnessed its amazing effects. Was I interested? I nodded. We arranged we would ‘do’ the timeline therapy the next week, and that I should bring with me a sheet of paper listing everything I disliked about myself.

So I went home. I didn’t know what to do. The skeptic in me was yelling that this sounded hokey, and I should at least do some research. But what if it did turn out to be ridiculous? I didn’t want to think any less of this woman who had helped me for the last six months. I asked Mum what she thought, and she Googled timeline therapy immediately. She read over it, and I saw her frown. She told me that it seemed ok until the last paragraph, which had started talking about past lives. Damn. I looked up neurolinguistic programming, and at the time the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry described it as a psychological technique that hadn’t been proven one way or another (at least, that’s what I remember it saying).

Then I saw a way out. Timeline therapy seemed to involve hypnosis. Great! I knew that hypnosis is still fairly mysterious, but is definitely a valid scientific area. Maybe this technique could really work.

And this is how I, die-hard skeptic, fell for one of the more ridiculous types of pseudoscience / alternative medicine. It was presented by somebody I liked, and claimed to be able to solve all my problems. I simply convinced myself that there could be something to it by latching onto the smallest area of possibility, namely hypnosis, ignoring all other evidence.

The next week I arrived, complete with a detailed list of my failings as a person that had not been fun to compile. I sat down in her office. She was confident, excited. This was going to give me a fresh start, I was going to leave the building with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Ok. I would be open-minded.

She produced various documents. It was important that I understood the basis of timeline therapy. There are, she said, three reasons it works so well. Firstly, there’s the psychological reason. Ok. Then, there’s the metaphysical reason. More alarm bells. The word ‘metaphysics’ is a red flag for nonsense. I remember trying to push this to one side. There was still the possibility that this could work. Then came the third reason: quantum physics. My heart sank. If ‘metaphysics’ is a red flag, bringing up quantum physics is an air-raid siren. Its inherent lack of common sense lends itself to use by those who would have you believe something untrue, and any use of the term outside of a book on science is a guarantee that something is amiss. I was told that the process involved a ‘non-mirror reversal’ and asked, as somebody who’d studied physics, whether I thought made sense? Aside from the fact that A-level physics certainly doesn’t touch quantum stuff, I admitted that it didn’t. I was told that just because I may not have understood it didn’t mean it didn’t work.

Moments later, she explained the process to me. It didn’t involve any hypnosis, and that’s when the last real vestige of hope left me. I tried to bring it back, but the whole thing was too much, too ridiculous.

It was very important that she read out from a script. The conversation, as I remember it, went roughly like this:

LC: Close your eyes, and relax.
ME: Ok.
LC: Everybody has a timeline, which runs through them. This timeline represents your future and your past. I want you to visualise your timeline, and tell me in which direction it is going.
ME: (saying whatever came into my head) It’s going through me from front to back.
LC: Great. At some point in your life, there was an event that sparked off all of your troubles. You do not know where that is, but your subconscious does. We’re going to locate it. Firstly, and I want you to give me the answer that your subconscious supplies, did this event happen before, during or after your birth?

We were now firmly entrenched in woo-woo land.

ME: After.
LC: Great. I’m talking directly to your subconscious, now. What age did this happen?
ME: …
LC: Relax, and let the number come.
ME: …
LC: I want you to give me the first answer that comes into your head, as that will be the correct one. What age did this event happen?
ME: (this number did, indeed, pop into my head, presumably because that’s what happens when people tell you to think of a number) Five.
LC: Ok. Visualise yourself on your timeline.
ME: Ok.
LC: Float up and above your timeline, and move backwards along it, until you reach the age of five. Have you done that?
ME: (visualising it, and wanting to go home) Yes.
LC: Move to five minutes before the event. Feel the emotions.
ME: Ok.
LC: Move to five minutes after the event. Feel the emotions. Analyse them. Let them go.
ME: Ok.
LC: Move to the event itself. Release the emotions.
ME: Ok.
LC: Now, rise up into the air again, and come back to the present.
ME: Ok.
LC: Open your eyes.

Did I feel better, she asked. I said that I didn’t, really. She asked whether we should go through it again. I was noncommital, so we went through the whole routine once more, but much faster. Again I was asked whether I felt better. I said that I couldn’t really tell any difference. That was ok, she said, beneath the surface everything was much better, and I’d feel the effects eventually.

I tried to put up a pretense, but have never been any good at that. I was crushed, and it showed. We arranged to meet again the next week, and I left with neither spring nor smile.

That was a bad evening. I’d spent the morning writing down everything I hated about myself, and after realising that the whole thing was a con, I felt awful. My parents had paid, I kid you not, £40 a week for the life coaching, and I felt like I’d let them down. They’d spent all this money and I should have realised that it had been a waste of time.

If my life coach thought that timeline therapy was a reasonable thing to do, had everything else made any sense? The whole episode was swiftly undoing all of the good that had come before. In hindsight there had been advantages, even if they were just talking to somebody for an hour. It had helped. Confidence triggers really did work. But the whole timeline therapy thing was so far off the scale of reason that it threatened to invalidate it all.

I went back the next week, had a slightly awkward session, and she told me to see how it went from thereon, and contact her if necessary. I haven’t seen her since.

I’m in two minds about this rather sudden end: it’s entirely possible that she believed me fixed, and honestly thought I’d be fine. Or, it could be that I was clearly uninterested in her techniques, so she cut me off. I think it’s probably the former, but unfortunately can’t discount the latter.

I’m not claiming that life coaching as a whole is a con, and I don’t want to say that my life coach was a fraud. That’s clearly unfair. Much of the help she gave me was founded in psychology, and some of it was effective. My life coach gave every impression of caring deeply about helping me, and believing fully in what she was doing. It’s just that she’d been seduced by NLP, which is a real shame.

The event has made me far more aware of how easy is it to be taken in. I wouldn’t have expected that something so crazy could get in under my radar, but it did. Somebody I liked was telling me something I wanted to be true, and I actively worked against reason to convince myself that it could work.

I’ve since learnt that neurolinguistic programming is no more than a money-making scheme that has been roundly debunked in terms of both method and effectiveness. It remains a popular tool used by business, but is in reality just another con. Training costs thousands of pounds, and once you’re a ‘qualified’ practitioner you can charge large amounts of money that people will happily pay. The Skeptic’s Dictionary updated their entry, and their conclusion is:

It seems that NLP develops models which can’t be verified, from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won’t work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are valid. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works. However, how do you measure the claim “NLP works”? I don’t know and I don’t think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more training sessions.

A little knowledge of the techniques of pseudoscience did at least alert me to the potential quackery, even if I then ignored those signs until they became overwhelming. I certainly learnt a great deal, and am now more sympathetic to people taken in by alternative medicines.

If I ever need help again, I’ll talk to somebody scientific. Whatever a doctor would recommend.

Skeptics' circle image

Chasing Geese

BoingBoing reports that Coventry university is now offering a degree-level course in Parapsychology. From the BBC News article:

The 15 post-graduate students starting the first course this autumn will look at the paranormal using several scientific methods.

For instance, some will investigate haunted houses, looking at statistics on which parts of buildings provide the most sightings.

Extra-sensory perception – where two people seem to communicate without using sound, vision, touch or smell – will also be looked at.

The skeptic side of my brain is suggesting that this is a big waste of time, but even accepting that…

Dr Lawrence said: “We’ve got to look at what people are experiencing.

“No one has bothered to look, so people’s view of the world has been divided into two components: the secular and humanist, and the religious.

That’s manifestly untrue. Of course people have bothered to look. There have been claims of ghosts and ESP since the scientific method was first suggested, and who wouldn’t want to properly investigate ghosts? It’s just that every single time anybody has looked, nothing has been found. Plenty of scientists have looked at both ghosts and ESP, and concluded that the existing evidence is flawed, and nothing supports the claims. The normal response is that mainstream science simply ignores the evidence, but given the sheer number of people convinced of the existence of both phenomena you might have expected a practitioner to seek fame and fortune by providing said evidence on the Internet, for example. Show that ESP exists and that’s a guaranteed nobel prize, an easy $1,000,000, plus nigh-on eternal fame. But nobody has. Of course this doesn’t mean that there’s definitely nothing there, but it does suggest it very strongly, and it’s very different from “no one has bothered to look”.

The psychology of parapsychology is far more interesting to me. To take just one tributary, the best so-called practictioners of ESP are actually experts, whether they know it or not, in cold reading, which often involves picking up on very subtle clues in body language and speech. It turns out that humans are actually very, very bad at hiding their true feelings, for good evolutionary reasons involving the eradication of ‘cheats’ who would fake emotion for their own personal gain. In fact, the Facial Action Coding System details the meanings of involuntary facial muscle reflexes, and trained users can invariably determine when people are lying. This is all wonderful to me. I’d be as happy as anybody if ESP was proven to be real, but with no reason to suspect it beyond hearsay I’m more than happy to follow the evidence.

Talent < Training

Last week I mentioned Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics. Their latest article in the New York Times is apparently causing a stir, and it’s not hard to see why. In it they describe the work of psychology professor Anders Ericsson:

Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

Their work, compiled in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

The full article describes the most effective methods of learning, which appear to be goal-setting and immediate feedback. Given the enormous amount of research that has apparently resulted in the conclusions, I think this should be spread as far and wide as possible.

Uncontrollable Thoughts

This is a fairly long, introspective post, and I don’t mind if you skip it 🙂 I’m hoping I won’t panic in the middle of the night (although apparently it is the middle of the night) and delete it, too…

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about different kinds of thoughts recently, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a language problem when trying to discuss them. There needs to be a way of differentiating between ‘thoughts that just come into your head’ and ‘thoughts that arise after consideration’. Take the following example: when I see somebody who looks middle-eastern, with a beard, the word ‘terrorist’ will pop into my head. This isn’t something I want to associate with what I’m seeing, and it is not something that I ‘think’ in any conscious way, but it’s what arrives in my mind and there’s nothing I can do about it. I obviously do not consider all bearded people who look middle-eastern to be terrorists, and at the same time there’ll be ‘thoughts’ indicating this, but nevertheless the concept of a terrorist is an immediate reaction.

However, if I say ‘I saw that guy and thought he was a terrorist’ then I sound like a horrible person, so I think there needs to be another word. Maybe there is, and I just don’t know it, or perhaps foreign languages have something appropriate. It’s not correct usage, but I’m going to use the german word gedanke (plural gedanken) to refer to these ‘thoughts that just come into your head’.

Having read a couple of popular explanations of evolutionary psychology, I think it’s the case that gedanken are simply the result of associations in the storage structure in the brain. This structure allows the word ‘red’ to cause gedanken of ‘communism’, ‘apples’ and ‘Adair’, despite these three concepts having no other link. The subconscious is continually processing the environment, and will feed information to the conscious mind, and that’s all there is to it.

Why do I bring this up? Because I don’t think I ever really figured this out before, and I have a suspicion everybody else did in their mid-teens. I’ve always been a worrier, but there’ve been phases during the last five years where it’s been extreme. I’ve latched onto something and the worry has consumed me to the extent that I’ve become physically ill. After a particularly bad phase, a couple of years ago now, I managed to wrench myself out of it by sheer force of will. I never really figured out why I was worrying, though, I just figured out a way to prevent myself dwelling. Looking back now, however, I can see that the worries were mostly linked to supposed guilt. My lack of self-confidence had morphed into a sense of ‘I’m a bad person’ over the years and eventually I started with the aforementioned obsessive worrying. Sometimes I would find some insignificant little event (from any point in my life) during which I offended somebody, or lied, or made a mistake, and I’d feel guilty. It was more evidence for the ‘I’m a terrible person’ box. More often, though, I think that the worry and guilt came from gedanken.

A mild example would be something like this: my neighbour downstairs always leaves cash outside her door for the milkman, and if I arrive home fairly late there are sometimes £10 notes sitting there. When I see them, there’s a gedanke that says ‘I could steal that’. It’s not that I want to, nor that I have any intention of doing so, it’s simply that the gedanke is there. That’s fairly innocuous, but it’s the kind of thing I’d pick up on.

A particularly bad time was when I used to worry myself sick if I ever saw a man and there was a gedanke saying ‘that guy’s attractive’. Did that mean I was repressing gay tendencies? I could spin intricate webs of how I must be repressing the notion without realising it. It wasn’t the possibility of being gay so much as that I’d clearly been lying to myself and everybody around me for years. When this kind of worry is floating around your brain and you find yourself, say, wanting to give another guy a hug for whatever reason, this is more proof! Every little thing becomes an indication of made-up ‘suppressed feelings’. These kind of thoughts can result in horrible late-night guilt trips, and it all stems from gedanken.

These may all sound stupid written down, but at the time it was utterly horrendous. When you think you’re a terrible person it’s not something you want to talk to people about, as then they’ll know and hate you…I didn’t really understand that gedanken were not and could not be meaningful on their own. If the gedanke of stealing money isn’t actually coupled with any desire to do so, then what’s the problem? It’s simply an observation. A gedanke saying ‘that guy is attractive’ means nothing unless there’s actually some romantic or sexual desire to go with it, which there wasn’t (this latter reasoning may have occurred at the time, but my explanation was an apparently superhuman ability to repress such feelings). The reasoning may well come from experience of what women find attractive, or maybe it’s entirely possible to judge somebody’s physical appearance regardless of sexuality – who knows. Whatever the case, I think it was a major problem for me that I never really understood that gedanken were simply reflexes of association, and not meaningful without some emotional or logical accompaniment.

As a matter of interest, this train of thought was sparked off by an incident yesterday. I attended a ball on Saturday evening, during which there was a demonstration of Latin dancing. At one point the female dancer moved to within half a metre of me, and swayed, shimmied and looked sultry for maybe ten seconds, while wearing a dress that barely covered her very grown-up figure. So what? Well, although you’d never have guessed it, she was 14. It was uncomfortable enough for me, but she was staring at the guy on my left and I heard him remark afterwards that he felt like he should be in prison. In that situation the gedanken are obviously going to be sexual in nature. It’s just unreasonable to expect otherwise, in my view. Yet the whole time the conscious mind is saying ‘she’s 14, this is wrong’. As it happens, the sexual nature didn’t particularly affect me. I wasn’t turned on – although I have to say I wouldn’t automatically condemn anybody who was – I just felt incredibly uncomfortable, and wanted her to move away. It would be extremely easy, however, to panic over the sexual connotations. Without distinguishing between gedanken and normal thoughts, it would be easy to think you’d had sexual thoughts over a 14 year old, which isn’t what happened. The brain simply saw something it associated with sex, and said so.

The above isn’t as clear-cut as the previous examples, since I think the situation is at least somewhat morally ambiguous, but I’m very glad I no longer have those kind of worries, as that would have been bloody awful.

Geez, I hope the above makes sense, and that you don’t all think I’m a total nutjob. It helps to write this all out so I can get it straight in my head, and I think people should talk about this kind of thing anyway. I considered not posting, but if there’s anybody else out there who’s had similar problems then there’s the possibility this may help them slightly. Of course this could all be nonsensical pop-psychology, but it seems to make sense right now.